Again I say to you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God. (Matt 19:24, NASB)
It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God. (Mark 10:25, NASB)
For it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God. (Luke 18:25, NASB)
Three of the four gospels include an account of Jesus’ encounter with a rich man. In these accounts in Matthew, Mark, and Luke, Jesus makes a rhetorical claim regarding the eye of a needle (or is it a door?) and a camel (or is it a rope?).
Bible Bits is not now going to attempt to unravel the thicket of possible meanings inside this narrative, but we will point out a couple of bits about camels, ropes, and elephants.
First, the Greek word for our English “camel” is κάμηλος, kamēlos.
A similar sounding word in the Greek is κάμιλος, kamilos, which means rope or a ship’s rope. This Koine Greek word κάμιλος does not occur in the New Testament but is a word of NT times.
κ ά μ η λ ο ς k a m ē l o s camel κ ά μ ι λ ο ς k a m i l o s rope
These words for camel and rope have similar pronunciations in the Greek, and so some commentators have proposed that Jesus was actually speaking of placing a rope through the eye of a sewing needle. We will not comment here regarding the correctness of this interpretive suggestion (but any good commentary will weigh-in.)
Second, expressing the impossibility of a thing via the rhetorical devices of simile — in this case pushing-a-large-thing through-a-small-thing — is seen two times in the Jewish Talmud commentary. In these cases however, it is a poor elephant being shoved through a sewing needle. (By the way, compare: “putting a square peg in a round hole”.)
From the Talmud, Berakhot 55b:21
Rava said: Know that this is the case, for one is neither shown a golden palm tree nor an elephant going through the eye of a needle in a dream.
From the Talmud, Bava Metzia 38b:16
Rav Sheshet said mockingly to him, employing a similar style: Perhaps you are from Pumbedita, where people pass an elephant through the eye of a needle, i.e., they engage in specious reasoning.
This suggests that the camel-elephant-needle figure of speech was, perhaps, in use by Jews during the New Testament days of Jesus, and that Jesus was borrowing and adapting this idiom.
Again, Bible Bits is not here attempting to take as stand on the many-century debate over whether the camel-needle expression refers to the difficulty of a thing verses the impossibility of a thing.
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